Reflections: Refugee Wales

The forced and thoughtless partition of India in 1947 created a unique rupture between the once coexisting communities of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus as well as the spaces (home) inhabited by them. Hence, drawing the borders of the 1947 Partition resulted in the subcontinent inheriting ‘‘a geography of trauma’’ (Jennifer Yusin 2009: The silence of partition). Notwithstanding the almost 75 years that have elapsed, the South Asian subcontinent has been struggling to deal with this event. The trauma of this forceful sundering of geographies, communities and cultures resurfaces socially and politically not only between the partitioned nations—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh-- but has led to other upheavals even within the nations themselves, in the form of wars, terrorist attacks, communal riots and the million types of microaggressions between identity groups. 

The loss of home, land and community caused by the partition has been expressed through literary and cultural works throughout the last seven decades. These expressions of trauma and recording of memory, though specific to this partition and borders, are universal in that they represent the trauma and erasure caused by the drawing of every border, whether physical or socio-cultural. Hence, one could use the phrase “every border is a geography of trauma” to all borders that need crossing in order to construct an identity that liberates one from the patriarchal, nationalist forces, and limitations that restrict individuals and communities.

Our current project, Refugee Wales, which collects the stories of Sri Lankan Tamils and Syrian refugees in Wales, too, resonates with the issues raised by the 1947 partition and both of these topics are part of my research projects for my PhD and my post-doctoral work.  When I had the opportunity to chair a session named South Asian Transcultures at the 17th ECALALS Triennial Conference (28 – 30 June 2021) I focussed specifically on two papers, Devika Karnad’s “Identity Across Borders: Tracing a South Asian 'Transcultural' in Indo-Anglian Women's Fiction and Susan Rajendran’s “Challenging Aesthetic Borders: Postcolonial Narratives and Literary Innovation in Sri-Lankan Writing”. In them I found resemblances to my previously mentioned projects.  

Among the two papers, Devika Karnad covered the issue of trauma caused by borders (between India and Pakistan), and the literary imaginary that allows the characters to think beyond borders and inhabit spaces that were once common heritage of all communities that have now been rendered inaccessible due to national and international politics that emerged from the partition.

Devika discussed two Indian English novels by two Indian female authors. They are, Difficult Daughters (1998) by Manju Kapur and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) by Arundhati Roy. Both the novels represent a ‘transcultural’ conception of identity that spans across borders in South Asia, geographically as well as socio-culturally. These literary imaginaries explore the “capacity for embodying the transitory through its ability to move fluidly between the past and the present” and between the borders created by multiple identities, at a time when identities have been rigidified through decades of ‘partition-wars-terrorism-communal riots’ discourses and rendered further impregnable through the majoritarian discourses that rule these nations today. Devika’s discussion of these two novels, while laying bare the aberrant situation of the partitioned South Asia and the socio-political turn these nations have taken, also exposes the shallowness of the politics of “identity harvesting” (Manuel Castell: The Power of Identity, 2011) by the ideologies and demagogues who rule South Asian nations today. Devika’s presentation was a critique of the politics that feeds on borders, identities and the apparatuses that sustain them.

In a similar vein to Devika’s choice of texts that focus on the transgression of borders despite the current trends of majoritarian identity politics, Susan Rajendran also examined “how early to mid-twentieth century writers in Sri-Lanka aspired to construct a Sinhala identity through artistic and literary production” that defy the majoritarian identity politics. Covering the works of two authors: Martin Wickramasinghe (1890-1976) and Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914-1996), Susan tries to prove that these two authors used disparate literary traditions “to explore the commonalities of human experience in a manner geared to local sensibilities”. While the authors used Buddhist themes and Sinhala folklore to construct a Sinhala identity they also guarded against nativist attitudes and tried to foster a transcultural approach. 

As the Refugee Wales project progresses, we realise that in Sri Lanka, the postcolonial effort at nation building has focussed predominantly on political and ideological discourses about “preserving the ‘purity’ of Sinhala Buddhist culture from Western influence as well as perceived threats from the Muslim and Tamil minorities” as Susan has argued. This was a majoritarian ethno-religious-linguistic project where the minorities and their culture(s) were to be downgraded, then erased. This was an exercise at guarding and harvesting identities for political power by excluding other stakeholders. We know what it produced: ethnic strife that resulted in a civil war which lasted of and on for over five decades, rendering a huge population into refugees. Against such a dominant cultural and political discourse Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra, through their art and literature, try to construct alternate responses to the vexed question of national identity and highlight the possibility of a transcultural/transnational identity. Given Sri Lanka’s fractured national identity caused by majoritarian politics and ethnic conflict, if any national reconciliation must happen, a new national imaginary is essential. This could be found especially through works such as the ones produced by Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra. 

South Asian identity politics is as much a legacy of the colonial rule as it is the outcome of ethno-religious-linguistic ideologies’ identity harvesting power game. When the power transferred from the British to the native elites there were efforts at building multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation states. Struggle for power and resources eventually gave way to majoritarian rule that discriminated against minorities resulting in conflicts. In Sri Lanka, the conflicts morphed into civil war. In India, Hindu majoritarianism is on full display today where discrimination and the persecution of minorities and Dalits have become systemic. It is only a matter of time before this could morph into violence and a war of secession as happened during pre-partition days. At such times focus on cultural works that can offer a counter narrative that helps people imagine transcultural/transnational identities is a valuable effort.

These two papers, as they try to offer a transcultural imaginary, also help us with insights into what line of exploration in our interview process could shed light on the area of our research in the Refugee Wales project.

On the 30th June 2021, I chaired a session entitled “Identities in the Muslim Diaspora” for the 17th EACLALS Triennial Conference at Cardiff University 28th-30th June 2021. The session included presentations by PhD researchers from UK universities at different stages of their research. In line with the conference’s theme of Transcultural Mo(ve)ments, the papers topics ranged from Palestinian diaspora fiction, the cultural productions of “Home” in contemporary diasporic fiction and the concept of third-spacing in the narratives of the female Arab-American writers. Despite the uniqueness of the approaches to the fictional texts the researchers analysed, they all hit upon themes relating to cultural dislocation, diasporic experiences, and the clashes of the encounter between the Western and Eastern worlds. In their analyses, the presenters examined how the authors/characters’ ethnic, bi-cultural and individual identities, in the texts they analyse, are shaped by political, ethnic, cultural and gendered factors.

These topics raised a question about the role of fiction writers as historians and in our case, at the Refugee Wales Project, as oral historians who respond to and who present a record to the future generations about a history of displacement and violence that led to issues of belonging, identity, race, memory, and trauma. I was particularly interested in two papers: Haleema Alaydi’s “Rethinking Palestinian Diaspora Fiction” and Anas Alhaisony’s “Forging British Asian Identites: Interrogating Cultural Productions of Home” as I found them closely related to our approach at the Refugee Wales Project.                                      

Having lived in the refugee camps in Jordan as a Palestinian refugee, Haleema Alaydiexamines the role fiction plays in producing new understandings of the Palestinian’s refugee identity and of shifting the refugee narrative from the trauma story to that of strength and resilience. These questions resonate with the issues we, in the Refugee Wales Project, are trying to respond to as they have been emerging from our interviews with both the Syrian and the Sri Lankan refugees. Haleema’s previous position as a Palestinian refugee and her current research on Palestinian fiction, amid a critical period in Palestine’s political history resembles my previous situation as a PhD researcher of the Iraqi Fiction of War in the aftermath of the US occupation to Iraq. Also Haleema’s involvement with interviewing refugees, as part of her research, is similar to mine, as a previous asylum seeker myself now interviewing Syrian refugees for the Refugee Wales Project. This synergy brings about questions that concern empathy and the subjective/objective position of the researcher in dealing with the research subjects who are witnessing an ongoing political upheaval back home. 

I was also interested in Anas Alhaisony’s examination of Susheila Nasta’s definition of home not as that ‘where one belongs [to], but [as] the place where one starts from’ (2002). This concept of home made me reflect on the way Khalid, one of my Syrian interviewees, refers to his new life and that of his family in Wales as: “This is our society now” (Refugee Wales Interview, 2021). The idea of “home as the place where one starts from” brings a series of related ideas in terms of the “two-way approach to integration” which, Noor, another Syrian participant suggested while reflecting on her experience of resettlement in Cardiff in 2016 (Refugee Wales Interview, 2021).  I believe that such an approach would facilitate resettlement and makes refugees feel more welcomed, accepted, and less isolated and would pave the way for Wales to be a true Nation of Sanctuary.

Remote interviewing for Refugee Wales project

Remote interviewing for Refugee Wales project

 

لو  كنتُ في سجن حقيقي.. وكان هناك خمسون سجين سيكون عندي مالايقل عن خمسة أصدقاء… ولكن أنظري الى حالتي هنا… لايوجد أحد حولي…

If I was in a real prison… say there are fifty prisoners in one room, you would at least make friends with five of them… But here, look at my situation. There is no one around.

Salih, Cardiff, 2020

Short quote from Salih, a Syrian refugee in Cardiff. Copyright: Cardiff University/Amgueddfa Cymru


Towards the end of 2019, I began working as a Research Associate at the AHRC funded project “Refugee Wales: The Aftermath of Violence”. The project is a partnership between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. Its aim is to record the stories of refugees in Wales, inform Welsh government of what we’ve learnt from them, and archive them as part of the national collections. My role is to record interviews with Syrian refugees who have settled in Wales since 2011.

I am an Arabic-speaking Iraqi and new to Wales myself, so my first challenge was finding willing participants from the Syrian community. Once I had been introduced via a gatekeeper, I started meeting potential participants to gain their trust and confidence and to explain the project further. Establishing a relationship of trust with people whose lives have been in turmoil is not straightforward. My days were ebbing and flowing between positive and negative responses, encouraging and disappointing reactions, scheduling and rescheduling of appointments, rejections and last-minute cancellations. I succeeded in completing my first interviews in February 2020 and had others planned. Then came the COVID-19 lockdown on 23rd March. 

When it became obvious that this situation would last some time, we decided reluctantly to experiment with remote interviewing. One of our team, Beth Thomas, is an OHS trainer who advised us, after discussion with her colleagues, on the options available. Our choice of method was decided on the following principle: that it should be as simple and secure as possible for the interviewees. We used a mobile phone connected to one channel of a Zoom H5 recorder, with the other channel recording the interviewer via a clip-on mike.

It seemed straightforward. Nevertheless, I struggled with the number of wired connections. I experimented with family and friends.  I wondered what kind of interview it would be if I was unable to see my participants. I also wondered how my interviewees would feel about not seeing me. How could I expect the participants to be at ease telling their life stories to someone they are unable to see?

The other option was to connect the Zoom H5 in the same way to the audio output of a computer, to record the audio only of a Zoom video interview. This made more sense to me as it would enable me and the interviewees to see one another. However, most of my participants were unhappy with this option because they either didn’t have a computer, had no access to Zoom, or they had problems with WiFi. 

It quickly became clear that almost all my participants were happier using WhatsApp on their smartphones, as this was how they normally connected with their families overseas. WhatsApp allowed us to conduct video interviews while recording audio locally on the Zoom H5, using the same setup as before. The only drawback was bandwidth and WiFi reception. I had some remote WhatsApp interviews which went well, with reasonable sound quality, and a disastrous one because I was unaware of how bad the WiFi was at the interviewee’s end. Other challenges ranged from dealing with the noise of children at the interviewee’s house, street noise, postmen and deliveries at my door or their door, my next-door neighbour’s loud music and my smoke alarm going off whenever my daughter burnt her eggs! 

In some ways, the pandemic strangely helped strengthen my relationship with interviewees. I have even developed strong bonds with some of my participants which transcended social distancing rules and highlighted our common vulnerability as human beings. They were more than mere research subjects but persons who need to be listened to and be supported in a very difficult stage of their resettlement. However, that involvement occasionally made it difficult to draw the line between supporting others and protecting yourself.

Salih was introduced to me as a Syrian refugee who met my requirements for project participants. All I knew about Salih was that he was a Syrian-Kurd who was resettled in Cardiff a few months before the first lockdown. I introduced myself over the phone and asked if he was interested in an initial remote meeting. Salih interrupted me saying: “I wish you could visit me and my wife in our house. I am in a wheelchair and my wife has some health problems. We only have one person who comes to check on us and brings us groceries… When our Home Office Caseworker comes for a visit, he talks to us through the living room window, hands us documents to sign, asks a couple of questions and leaves… We barely talk to people.” He became very emotional and asked me to help him reunite with the rest of his family who had been relocated in Germany. I explained to Salih that I was a researcher with no hand in policy making. Despite this, he was determined to be part of the project and have his voice heard.  

The phone call upset me. My inability to improve his situation made me ashamed of asking someone like Salih, who was painfully lonely, to narrate his personal story of suffering and survival remotely. Next morning, I called Salih and asked if he and his wife were happy for me to visit them wearing a facemask and maintaining social distance. We agreed to meet the following day. 

After taking all the necessary precautions; wipes, a facemask, Covid-19 declaration forms etc. I went to Salih’s house.  Salih opened the door while leaning on his walking frames. He greeted me in his Arabic-Kurdish accent and led me into a dark first -floor flat, with one small window being their opening to the outside world. Salih’s wife sat on a small mattress on the floor. She had hardly any Arabic but could understand some of what I was saying as I saw her nodding at times. She made us a tasty Syrian coffee and uttered few words in Kurdish which Salih translated to me as: “I am so pleased to have a guest for whom I can offer coffee again as I used to!”

It was a short, emotional and tiring interview. I have kept in touch with them and have promised to revisit once lockdown is lifted. But I feel heavily burdened with helplessness, sorrow, and anger at their situation. 

We are talking through virtual windows, barely touching the lives of those beyond the pane.

Radhika Mohanram

I can trace the origin of this project, Refugee Wales, to 2009 when the civil war in Sri Lanka came to a bloody end when the government forces defeated the LTTE (Tamil Tigers).  The stories of the immense suffering of the Sri Lankan Tamil civilians flooded the media and, then, these stories disappeared.  Being an Indian Tamil myself, I followed the news of the final days of the civil war obsessively as these were narratives of my “cousins” in South Asia, and we were linked by language, culture, religion, food habits, mythology, families, and  with a commonality of memories and practices.  It is estimated that between 100,000-200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live in the UK, with a large number of them arriving as refugees from 1983 onwards.  The civil war in Sri Lanka lasted, off and on, for over 5 decades and Sri Lankan refugees who arrived in this country have lived here for more  than 2 generations.  

No sooner had the Sri Lankan civil war ended, then the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and it is still ongoing. The war has currently resulted in over 13 million Syrians who have been either internally displaced within Syria, or in neighbouring countries, or in Europe and the rest of the world.  Germany has over 800,000 Syrian refugees and the UK, a paltry 18,000-20,000 of them in 2021. The body count of Syrians who have died in this exodus is still not fully accounted for and the bottom of the Mediterranean sea, which is considered to be the deadliest migration route for refugees, has become a graveyard for them.  

Neither the Sri Lankan Tamil nor the Syrian refugees sought refuge in the UK so they could shop in Tesco and take jobs away from the locals.  They left their countries under desperate circumstances—the daily bombings, the kidnapping of children (and youth) by rebel soldiers forcing them into becoming child soldiers, the rape of women and children, the loss of jobs, homes, family members—spouses, children, parents, siblings--the lack of food, safety, and a full night’s sleep; it was the precarity of life.  

In Homo Sacer, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points to the distinction made by the Ancient Greeks between bios (the form or manner in which life is lived and which assesses the richness of life) and zoë (the biological fact of life) and suggests that in contemporary life that distinction has collapsed.  So, life now only means bare life, zoë.  The biological fact of life with all its potentialities and possibilities has been erased.  For the French philosopher Michel Foucault, modern power is about “fostering life or disallowing it.”  This is how civilian populations in Sri Lanka and Syria were perceived by their governments—a full life disallowed for some of its citizens so that they are reduced to a bare life, their only possibility being to flee.  This is how refugees are perceived in the current political climate with hostile environment policies, to be seen as only deserving of a bare life, to show how unwelcome they are.  

If by moving away from their country results in a total and complete break from their past lives for the refugees, a rupture from their histories and cultures, what this project hopes to achieve is to allow refugees to connect their past to their present, give them a voice, and a sense of belonging and that people are, indeed, witnessing their trials.  The Museum with the richness of cultural life that it offers, through its resources, will assist in enabling refugees to become citizens of Wales, and help them to transform their lives in the country that is now their home; it will facilitate and contribute to them leading their lives into the fullest of its potentialities and possibilities.  

And those of us who already live in Wales, how will these newcomers change our lives? By hearing their stories, we, too, will reach further into our potentiality, of the richness of diversity, compassion, being good hosts and helping them go through their transformation and, in so doing, initiate new ways of being and becoming Welsh.

Angham Abdullah, author

Angham Abdullah, Refugee Wales research associate

When I first read about this project, “Refugee Wales: The Afterlife of Violence,” I immediately identified with the idea of the afterlife of violence. This idea is closely related to my personal experience as an Iraqi survivor of wars, an asylum seeker and a former academic in my home country, struggling at some stage, to set my foot in the British academia. Moreover, my PhD research “Contemporary Iraqi Women’s Fiction of War” and my publications focus on war-related trauma and on how memory and identity function to shape and define the lives of survivors. 

In my PhD research, I analyzed narratives of the three decades of wars, sanctions and occupation in Iraq and I examined how survivors of traumatic events undergo a “crisis of survival” which transform them into victims to their survival. The crisis of the characters in the narratives takes different forms: sorrow, guilt, uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. However, the characters are determined to live and can put up with the hardships they are facing by means of the strategies of coping: denial, escape, daydreams and through the act of narration.

 Not only fictional characters could survive the woes of war, but also the writers of the texts and myself. In my PhD research, I added my personal memories of war to the experiences of the characters and the writers to generate one story of dealing with loss of a country and of loved ones and of putting up with the sorrow of an unfinished political disarray. My recollections of war work as a personal testimony to a historical fact and locate me as a historian and in my thesis also as an author who narrates the history of the political conflict in Iraq.

Unfortunately, this conflict was enlarged to engulf Syria, a very close country to Iraq and with which Iraqis share similar culture, traditions, and values. And above all we share Arabic language which enabled me to work as a volunteering interpreter with the Syrian refugees in the UK since 2012. 

In my role as an Associate Researcher in the “Refugee Wales Project,” I am responsible for meeting with Syrian refugees in Wales and of conducting interviews with them. The data collected from the recorded interviews will be translated, analyzed and be part of a book later. Thus, I am offered a great opportunity to add my initial PhD research findings and my personal story of displacement, of longing and of belonging to the stories of refugees who are striving to build a new life in Wales. Together we will produce another narrative of survival and a historical record to generations of Syrians who would be longing to hear testimonies from the witnesses who are seeking to integrate while enduring an unresolved misery back home.

https://refugee.wales